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Irish Pagan Holidays

Irish Pagan Holidays and Pagan Festivals

Pagan Holidays (Holy Days) worldwide are coming back to a more general use and understanding, with folk often asking questions about whether Christmas is a Pagan Holiday (it is, sort of), and observing the 8-fold Wheel of the Year.

The current Neo Pagan calendar (and its primarily Wiccan holidays) is ostensibly based off the ‘Celtic Wheel of the Year’, as the early creators and authors of our modern traditions were very fond of their romantic notions of Celtic culture, and very sure that it was ok to just… take what they wanted, and change or use it however they wanted.

*cough* Coilíní *cough*

The problem with this (one of the problems) is that we now have a sort of tangled, much mangled, view of the original pre-christian Irish Pagan festivals, that even many Irish Pagans adhere to.

In this post, I’d like to break this down a bit, and clarify some of the basics, so that we can (hopefully), start fresh. With a somewhat cleaner slate for Irish Pagan practice. Le do thoil.

 

The Wheel of the Year

To begin with, the ‘traditional’ eight Pagan Holidays, are actually 2 sets of four. So the wheel of the year is maybe 2 wheels, rotating side by side.

This can be a little confusing if you’re not used to considering things this way, but I do remember being quite frustrated back in my baby Pagan days by how the festivals seemed to just be copies of each other. Like, within the Wiccan traditions, there’s not a huge difference between how you’re celebrating the Summer Solstice (Litha) and Beltane, for example.

In my native practice, I break the focus, themes or concerns out as follows:

  • The Fire Festivals – with Community elements, but a focus on Hearth & Home, and the Otherworld.
  • The Cross Quarters – with Community elements, but a focus on the Land & Sovereignty, and this World.

The Pagan Calendar names I use are in modern Irish, and the associated Gaeilge video is also my schoolgirl modern Irish pronunciation, to be clear.

Irish is a living language, and while I’m the first one to honour the Primitive Irish and Old Irish source material, they are different languages. We have modern Irish terminology for every single Pagan Holiday name, and a wealth of associated folklore and traditions within our living memory in Irish communities. So let’s use that.

Admittedly now, some of the folklore has gotten crossed over and shifted around with the Christian influences, eg. Summer Solstice bonfires now happen on St. John’s Eve, on the 23rd June, and the animal sacrifice tradition has moved from Samhain to St. Martin’s Day, on the 11th November. But that’s ok too.

At least the traditions still exist, and have grown and moved with the communities as we did.

 

Irish Pagan Holidays – the Fire Festivals

Focus on Community, Hearth & Home, the Otherworld (an Saol Eile).

When people first walked this land, there were 2 seasons: summer and winter. They signified the change and move between camping grounds, as theirs was a Hunter/Gatherer lifestyle.

These times of moving and changing were dangerous and uncertain, and this still holds true in the primary Irish Pagan holidays of Bealtaine, and Samhain, which remain times of great change and uncertainty.

When the people settled, and began to farm the land, the seasons of Growth and Harvest were marked, with Imbolg and Lúnasa, and so began the 4 Fire Festivals.

Lora O'Brien - Irish Pagan Holidays - Fire Festivals

[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]

IMBOLG

Personally, I use the name Imbolg for this festival. That’s from the Irish i mBolg, meaning ‘in the belly’, for the pregnancy aspects (animals as well as humans, because if we get pregnant at Bealtaine we give birth around now). Imbolc is commonly used too though, and may have associations with washing or a ‘spring clean’ after winter, from Folc, meaning ‘bathe or wash’. I’m honestly not sure which language the term Oimelc comes from, though it’s been given to mean ‘ewe’s milk’. That would be Bainne na Caoirigh in modern Irish though, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Bolg or https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Folc

BEALTAINE

We have this clearly in old Irish as Belltaine (with various other spellings, the manuscripts weren’t always precise or standardised), meaning the month of May, or even ‘the month of the beacon-fire) according to the eDIL. It may have associations with an Old Celtic God Boleros, ‘the flashing one’ (Ó hÓgáin) or Balar/Balor in Ireland, he of the single, blazing destructive eye (often thought to be symbolic of the sun), and form the word Bealtaine from Balor’s Fire (tine).

There are multiple spellings out there, and I know some of them are based on the Gaelic language of Scotland, which I don’t speak. But as we still use the word Bealtaine in modern Irish for the month of May, and again – this is a living language, and it’d be great not to have to deal with bastardised or anglicised versions of it anymore please and thank you – let’s go with that eh?!

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Bealtaine

LÚNASA

You’ll often see this written as Lughnasadh, and indeed, I’ve done so myself. As above though, I prefer the modern Irish spelling, and in Gaeilge, Lúnasa is the word for the month of August. I mean, I wasn’t joking about these Pagan holidays still being a part of our culture.

It’s most likely connected to the Old God Lugh, (lug in old Irish can be ‘magnificent, heroic, warlike’: eDIL), and Lugnasad is ‘the festival of Lugh, the first of August’: eDil.

You’ll see references too, to Lammas, which we don’t have in modern Irish. My basic exploration of Old Irish suggests it MIGHT be a version of a ‘fine, handsome or excellent hand’ (from n. Lám and adj. Mass?)… but be warned, that is a very rudimentary look at a compound word! I definitely don’t use it as a Pagan Holiday name anyway.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Lúnasa

SAMHAIN

It’s not pronounced Sam-Hane. Never. I don’t care what your esteemed Elders passed down to you not-so-very-long-ago (in the grand scheme of things).

This is a LIVING LANGUAGE. Respect it, and the people who still speak it every day. Stop that Sam-Hane shit immediately.

It probably comes from the Old Irish samfuin, meaning ‘death of Summer’: eDIL. Samhain in modern Irish is the word for the month of November.

So yes, we know how to pronounce it properly. (Are you getting a sense for how many times I’ve had U.S. Pagans correct my pronunciation? Like, I’m not sure how to even communicate how infuriating that is, especially when it happens consistently!)

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhain

 

Irish Pagan Holidays – the Cross Quarters

Focus on Community, Land & Sovereignty, this World (an Saol Sin – or Seo).

We know these times were important to our ancestors due, at least, to the sacred sites they constructed and used to observe and celebrate them. Massive monuments all over the island still attest to the power and value that was placed upon aligning ourselves, our communities, and our leadership, with these turning times of the Pagan year.

Please note: the common names Ostara, Litha, Mabon, and Yule, are at best culturally appropriated and co-opted into Neo Paganism, and at worst, carry entirely fabricated pseudo histories. I’m looking at you, Mabon.

They have NO place in native Irish paganism.

The Irish names below are simply the names of our seasons, as Gaeilge, and have always suited my personal practice around the Irish Pagan Holidays best.

Lora O'Brien - Irish Pagan Holidays - Cross Quarters

[Download this Chart as a PDF Below]

EARRACH – THE SPRING EQUINOX

The balance of day and night.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Earrach

SAMHRADH – THE SUMMER SOLSTICE

Mid Summer, the longest day.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Samhradh

FÓMHAR – THE AUTUMN EQUINOX

The balance of night and day.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Fómhar

GEIMHREADH – THE WINTER SOLSTICE

Mid Winter, the longest night.

Irish Language Resource – https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/Geimhreadh

 


[Click to Download FREE Gift – both Diagram Charts as a PDF – No Email Required!]

If you’d like more detail on any of the Irish Pagan Holidays, comment below and let me know. There’s already extensive sections in my books (see Publications – coming soon), but I can try and get some more blog posts and YouTube videos together for them if there’s an interest, and maybe even a wee course through our Irish Pagan School.

Let me know which of the Pagan holidays you want to see more on?!

 

Bealtaine – May Eve Magic in Ireland

Yellow Flowers on May Eve at Bealtane in Ireland

Fadó, fadó, sure there were only the 2 seasons in Ireland. Summer and Winter.

Even after things moved on, for people, and for the land, these main boundaries in time loomed large every year for the Irish people.

And the turning between the two was a time of magic, and mayhem… you’d never even know what could happen as the boundaries shifted and the worlds changed.

At Samhain, from Summer into Winter; and again at Bealtaine, from Winter back to Summer.

So, here we are now, on that very threshold. What is the magic that might happen, on May Eve in Ireland?

Long time ago now, the young children – especially girls – used to go around from house to house dressed in beautiful flowers. Think about the other side of this, with the Halloween customs we still have, and you’ll see the truth and the balance of it alright. These youngsters used to sing a song at each house, and get a few pence in exchange. They’d sing and bring flowers through the community, all the way around the boundaries.

You could do a bit of divination too, around May eve, if you were of a mind to. First sweep the threshold clean, sprinkle ashes from a fire over it, and watch for the first footprints. If you see the prints turned inwards, it means a marriage; but if you see the prints turned outwards, it means a death.

There’s talk to, of how they used to get a plate and sprinkle it with flour, then leave it at the threshold of the house. At sunset, take a look, and you would see the initials of your true love’s name.

In the old days, they’d also light a bush before the house on May Eve, and that would keep away thunder and lightning. ‘Twas sure to.

Folk would sit up at night on this eve, to be minding their cows and their land – there was a lot of witchcraft worked in those days. And maybe there still is sure, who knows?

One farmer I heard tell of had the experience of seeing a hare one May Eve going around his cows, and drinking a sup of milk from each cow. He chased the hare to a cabin with a hound he had with him. When he went into the cabin an old woman was panting in the bed. There’s a lot of stories like that I heard, when I was growing up here in Ireland.

They used also light a fire on May Eve too, and drive their cows over it. Or two bonfires side by side, and the cattle had to go between them. So close that the hide on them would be singed and the tang of burnt hair was strong on the breeze. In certain places, some would even be taken to the hilltops and bled; as an offering to the Old Ones, or to let out the bad humours… who knows why?

If there was a pond of water between two farmers, both farmers would try to be out early to skim the pond before the other got to it. They’d have to say the right words too: “North and South and East and West is mine”, or it wouldn’t even work, and their neighbour would get it all instead.

Then – to protect from all this magical influence going round and about at Bealtaine, you’d go and gather armful of yellow flowers. Or send the young girls of the house to do it, and these flowers were simply known as May Flowers. These are strewn at the gate of every field, outside the doors of homes and out-houses and even on the housetops. They’d keep away all sorts; the ill-luck, evil spirits, and disease.

Sure you’d never know what’s out and about on May Eve in Ireland.

 

Irish Paganism Q&A with Lora O’Brien

Irish Spirituality Q&A

It’s been suggested a couple of times that I should get on ‘the other side of the interview’, and talk about my own Irish Spirituality, and Pagan or magical practices. So recently I queried my Community for their questions on Irish Paganism and Spirituality (or my history/practice in particular). Then I went on FB Live and recorded the Video, which you’ll see below.

Here’s the Questions our Community asked…

Morgan Daimler what is your favorite subject to teach or write about and why?

Morgan Daimler What do you think is the best way for someone to get started with Irish Spirituality, and how can a person (anywhere) avoid the usual pitfalls of bad information while building an understanding of the spirituality and the Gods and spirits?

Mac Tíre Would you have any advice specifically with regards to connecting to deity (even more specifically An Morrigan) E.g. like what you were saying in your interview with Oein DeBhairduin about contracts. Also appropriate offerings and what NOT to do.

Cat O’Sullivan Sometimes no matter how hard you try to avoid it you end up having to deal with the other crowd (the Good Neighbours, The Sidhe, the Irish Fairies). What would you recommend. Bargain, banter or banish?

Teididh McElwaine Question: Could you recommend how to wisely pursue like-minded, serious people in our respective communities? Thanks! (eg. Pagan community building)

Victoria Danger Yay! What parts of your devotion/practice/spirituality are centered on joy? Tell us about the parts that are fun or feel good 😊

Gemma McGowan Apart from teaching, writing and political activism (which I know is already a lot!!!) what other areas do your Gods ask you to actively work in e.g. Devotional practice, ritual, healing, specific types of magical work?

Cheryl Baker What does daily/weekly/monthly practice look like for you?

Marocatha Bodua Brigiani I’d love to hear you talk about magic vs religion in Irish spirituality – are those pieces separate for you, are they not separate, how do they integrate or not in your practice.

Branwen Stephanie Rogers Aside from the lore and researching, what do you consider foundational to your practice and spiritual well being?

J-me Fae What is a practice that you, personally, would like to see folks outside of Ireland integrating into their work on Irish Spirituality? What do people do that most honors the gods and land you love?

SallyRose Rivers Robinson What altar items do you see as making up an Irish Spiritual altar? Is there specific things that should be there? Specific things that shouldn’t? Is it strictly personal choices?

Pamela Holcombe Question: I hear you say you found yourself Wondering around the otherworld many times throughout your life before you understood the way of traveling there so curious what your most profound experience was there or scary interesting experience was? Also I find that I sometimes end up on my island in my dreams and travel around in the other world in my dreams do you do that also and do you think it’s pretty much like a journey we do awake? 

Izzy Swanson What Carl Jung book would you read first? I printed a list of his collected works. My head may explode. I am most interested in his definition of the psychopomp.

Darla Majick What do you think about The Morrigan whiskey? I have it on our Morrigan Altar and love the bottle. Its not the best whiskey out there but it’s definitely not the worst. Ive blessed and cleansed ours before just putting in on Her altar. WE did ask her if she liked it and we did not get a negative response from her 

Alanna Butler GallagherHave you ever tried to draw what you saw (in the Otherworld, ref. Pamela’s Q above)? That experience illustrated sounds like it would be a learning point for other people to not do that type of thing for the craic 🤔

J-me Fae Do you have any specific recommendations for parents looking to support their kids in building authentic connection with Ireland? I read the stories to them, share *some* of what I am doing with them (but I’m wary there), and we are all learning Irish together, but at least one of them is hungry for more 

 

Check the Video for Answers to these Questions, and more!

And a Bonus Q that I missed during the FB Live!

Dawn Shields-Pettitt46:01 Have you ever found that any of your journeys..to other places etc match up with other practitioners?

Lora O’Brien – Irish AuthorDarn I missed this one Dawn Shields-Pettitt… sorry! Yes, I absolutely have. It’s one of the reason I standardised my technique so much – so that we can ‘test’ the Otherworld Journeys we do. That’s all Level 3 stuff, and most folk only work to Level 1 or 2… but I’m hoping as time progresses to be able to do a LOT more testing and exploration around this  Great Question!

Irish Pagan Spirituality Recommended Resources

The Three Realms in Irish Tradition

triple spiral in stone square

[from the archives, shared for personal history context…]

Perhaps, since you already work in this realm, you could look at the three realms (land, sea and sky) from the Tain and the three worlds of the shaman? Either from scholarship or practice. Formal is by no means necessary, though some reference to sources is appreciated.  In fact, with so much commentary and research I would be quite open to more subjective work…

Communication from Frater Docet Umbra, 2012


This article first appeared in the Journal of the Irish Order of Thelema, ‘Fortified Island’, Issue #1, in March 2013.

It’s a long time since I thought of my work in a Thelemic context.  Unsurprisingly, to me at least, not a lot changes when that shift does take place.  It didn’t take much to change my perspective to the concepts and practices of Thelema – different words, different names, different rituals, but the essence is the same as I had always believed and experienced.

I started through the Man of Earth initiation cycle as a personal journey, a challenge to myself that is one in a long series of such challenges.  A lifetime’s worth, or more, one might say.  I came from a firm family grounding in Irish heritage and nature exploration, exceedingly boring to the child I was, but ever appreciated since.  From personal Gnosis in my teens, I found training and connection in a Traditional Wiccan coven, working through their triple degree system and learning a whole lot.  Moving from there I found myself in Roscommon.  Not quite knowing how or why that had happened, I set to explore, and found I had landed in Cruachan.  Ancient Royal Capital, perhaps one of the first sites in Ireland of consistent ritual and ceremonial use.

Connection to the land became about more than just local entities and legends, as I had previously experienced.  A small group, just four of us, remained of our previous working group, and we were three intensely dedicated sisters and one male; who was learning a lot, but in some ways along for the ride.  And we began working through the worlds.

Neart mara dhuit,
Neart talamh dhuit,
Neart nèimhe.

Mathas mara dhuit,
Mathas talamh dhuit,
Mathas nèimhe.

Power of sea be with you,
Power of land be with you,
Power of sky.

Goodness of sea be with you,
Goodness of land be with you,
Goodness of sky.

Collected by Alexander Carmichael
I remain wary of Carmichael’s work, I must admit, but no more so than I am wary of many of the other folklorists of his time.  I find it difficult to reconcile how a person from another culture entirely – particularly when the language from which they are hoping to collect has so much in the way of tenuous and liminal associations and inflection (as is the case in Scots Gaelic and Irish) – can accurately capture or convey the ‘true’ meanings of the original.  However, the same can be said for nearly every single piece of literary material we have to work from, starting with the Christian Monks who faithfully transcribed the Irish myths, legends and even historical accounts (albeit changing the timelines on occasion to fit in the Christian worldview), and on up to certain more recent ‘Celtic’ explorers.  We must do what we can with what we have.

There is value to be had, even if at times it might only be useful in an inspirational sense, from the literature that is available.  As modern seekers, we can study the source material available, understand what we can from that, review and share experiences and theories with other seekers, and work consistently on developing our own connection from this point; the only place we have from which to work.

And so, that is what we did.  Looking at the Táin, an integral tale to this complex of sites, as well as it’s broader value in Irish Literature, we developed the idea of the Earth, Sea, and Sky model, the three worlds.  How would we learn this, experience this, with no one to teach it?  How could it be taught?  What would the journey of an initiation cycle look like when based around this core concept?  How could we make that work?

There were many late night conversations, many heated debates, and even a few all round arguments.  A loose plan was formed to work through each world on an annual basis, with a programme of rituals and exercises for each, culminating in an intense practical initiatory experience of the particular elements of that world.  We put ourselves through the wringer – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  We survived Earth, we survived Sea, we survived Sky.

Then everything blew apart, in quite a spectacular fashion.  The small sparks suddenly exploded out of all proportion.  Family relationships, careers, friendships, even a marriage, all burned up in the unplanned extra, the middle of the triple spiral that touches all three worlds, the sacred centre of every circle.  The world of Fire.

We survived Fire, but we did it as individuals.  Our work exploded and imploded, and, speaking for myself at least, evened out (eventually) into a steady, burning core of power and connection that touches all the worlds.  And it is that connection that has been my most important lesson.  Nothing stands alone.  There are stories within stories, sites within sites, people within people.  Inter-linking circles, spirals, which join place to place, people to people, and one time to another.  None of our sacred sites is just one thing, at one time.  None of our deities or archetypal characters stand alone, none are confined to one location, one function, one relationship.  None of the Daoine Eile are restricted to one role, one aspect, one place.  Recognising and studying the layers, the overlap, the bridging points, is essential.  Working between worlds can be a key to understanding Irish traditions.

Winter Solstice Greetings from Ireland

Winter Solstice in Ireland - Bonfire Sparks

Being Pagan in Ireland is a little different, I think, than being Pagan anywhere else.

We’re an odd lot, and we value individual strength, as long as it doesn’t upset the apple cart of family/community tradition, or give the neighbours anything bad to talk about.

I’m a… well, I don’t actually have a label that fits what I am or what I do, and that’s fairly reflective of Irish Paganism generally.

I’m an Irish heritage professional, a journalist, copywriter, a guide, an author – all things I’ve done or still do for my ‘day job’.

Personally, the term Draoi is the closest accurate description I’ve got, a ‘user of magic’.

Traditionally I might have been called a Bean Feasa (wise woman), but it seems a little arrogant to take that on for oneself. Before that, perhaps a Druid, though modern Druidry is very different to what that word means to me.

I am spiritual, but not religious, and I have a solid working relationship with the Gods, Guides and Guardians of old Ireland, and our sacred places.

How does all that translate into today’s Irish Christmas?
Most folk here go to mass on the eve or day, even if it’s only their token attendance of the year.

Besides the fact of the Catholic Church in Ireland essentially stopping anybody from leaving their organisation (is it just me, or is that a little cult-like? Illegal, even?) – Irish people are still stuck in ‘the done thing’, so babies are baptised, kids make communion and confirmation, and most people still get married in the church.

Many of us know that Winter Solstice is a much older tradition than our modern Christmas.

There’s the world famous Newgrange alignment, and the new but old City of Dublin Winter Solstice Celebration, with much more going on around the country, publicly and formalised just in the last few years.

Before that, you’d have to know someone who knows someone to get a personal invite to a genuine celebration rooted in Irish Spirituality.

So, raising kids in Ireland, interacting with non-Pagan friends and family, working, and all that jazz, you kinda have to do the Christmas thing, to some extent at least. But Winter Solstice is still a big deal, and getting more so.

How do we Irish Pagans handle that?

Winter Solstice in Ireland

We have a party.

Every year, on the Saturday before Christmas. We invite everybody we know. We start late afternoon, and carries on til the wee small hours.

This is the time of year we acknowledge the deepest and longest darkness, and make a point of balancing it with the lights of food and fire and feasting, family and friends.

And every year, I take a personal vigil through the longest night, to greet the sun the following morning. It’s a mark of respect, a point of sacrifice, and a time for quiet reflection on the balance of dark and light in my life, in my spirit. Time to adjust as necessary.

Do I think the sun won’t rise unless I am there to greet it? No, not as such… but I guess it doesn’t hurt to be sure, right?

You’re welcome ;o)

Have a Cool Yule folks, a Peaceful and Blessed Winter Solstice, and a Happy Christmas – wherever you are, whoever you’re with, and whatever you believe in.

For Authentic Irish Resources, and a real connection to Ireland in 2018 and beyond…
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An Irish Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice Fire

The Longest Night.

A woman sits by her fire, wrapped in a blanket to keep out the chill, watching the flames in the quiet of a room.

Her house is silent around her, family sleeping as she waits. Lights burn through the darkest hours.

When the deep blackness begins to lessen, she makes her way outside, searching the horizon.

A shaft of light appears, a bright lance across the land – winter is broken… Summer will return.

She smiles, then returns inside, sticks on the kettle and hops in the shower, before driving herself to work.

What? Did you think we were looking at a scene from long ago? Perhaps, but come the 21st of December, this ancient ritual will be repeated in houses all over Ireland. Meán Geimhridh, Midwinter, brings a vigil through the darkness, waiting for the new-born sun.

Irish people have been marking the return of the sun for at least 5,000 years. We have built vast and complex monuments around it, and not just Newgrange. You don’t even have to be a politician or lucky in the Winter Solstice lottery to see these wonders of a by-gone age.

Knockroe Passage tomb in Co. Kilkenny, which has been called ‘the Newgrange of the Southeast’, is a fine example, which contains extensive megalithic art, and not one, but two, chambers with astrological alignments; showing light through the chambers at both sunrise and sunset on the Winter Solstice. Or take a look at Drombeg Circle in Co. Cork, a beautiful ring of standing stones which frames a flat topped rock, aligning to the horizon where the sun sets on the Longest Night.

Many traditions, now associated with Christmas and the holiday season, have their origins in the pre-Christian past. We are lucky now to have such a beautiful blend of customs, fitted exactly to the Irish psyche and community spirit.

In bringing the evergreen tree inside, we remind ourselves of life within the seeming death of winter, of sustenance and growth that continues through the darkest times. Plants such as holly and ivy compliment this theme, and not forgetting mistletoe, which was especially sacred to our Druidic ancestors as a fertility symbol. Be careful who you kiss under the mistletoe at this year’s parties!

Decorating the tree with candles, and reflective items such as mirrors and silver coins, in the past stood for an amplification of the natural energies of the living greenery; bringing more light and life to the darkness, throwing it around the room. Today we use dodgy flickering fairy lights, glitter and tinsel, but the principle is the same. And safer, for the inevitable puppy or toddler tree attacks.

Green is the colour of life, and health, but so too is red – the bright blood of life that flows through our veins, keeping our hearts beating and our senses alive. Before a certain drinks company decided it’d look great on the jolly fat guy with the beard, the colour red was valued as a decoration and a reminder of life throughout our homes for the Winter Solstice season.

Wren Day, or Lá an Dreoilín in Irish, was continued until recent times on Stephen’s Day, with troupes of kids (known as wrenboys) going round the village or town with a fake bird on a decorated stick, singing or dancing and asking ‘a penny for the wren’. A little further back, we see a more grizzly form of this, in the hunting and capture of a live bird, which was then used to decorate the pole and held pride of place as a centrepiece for the dance that followed.

In a time of sickness and death for the weak, this may be an echo of an older sacrifice to the Gods of Winter; take one life and spare the others through the darkness until the coming of Spring. Or with the ‘winter-wren’ being a symbol of the old year, maybe the people simply wanted to make sure that it was well and truly done with.

The singing and dancing part of that tradition is pleasant, at least, and brings us to another Winter Solstice favourite, the feasting and the parties. This is one that most of us keep up, to one degree or another, and having a good party to look forward to can get us through the darkest, coldest mornings.

Winter is the time we naturally draw in on ourselves, it can be the loneliest, harshest time of year. It’s not just the cold that brings us down, it’s the lack of light, and company. In days gone by there was a serious food scarcity through the dark winter days too – but a bright feast, filled with family and friends, was the perfect reminder that the time of dark death still held strong seeds of light and life.

So, enjoy your parties!

Samhain with the Morrigan

Honeysuckle and Blackthorn Twist

I observe Samhain from dark moon to dark moon.

When I first went ‘public’ with this over 3 years ago, it seemed a novel idea to many folks, and maybe a little bit… extreme or some shit?

But it’s always made sense to me, for a few reasons:

  • 31st October as modern Samhain/Halloween doesn’t correlate with the original calendar date for the festival, because of calendars being moved about by a number of days.
  • ‘The original calendar date for the festival’ doesn’t even really make sense either… did our ancestors use calendars and view time the way we do?
  • References to ‘celebrating’ Samhain in Irish lore are most often along the lines of a 3 day festival or event, not one single night.
  • The lunar cycle has always felt energetically important at this time of year for me, where it doesn’t play a HUGE role ordinarily – that’s pure personal gnosis though.

 

So, this is how it works.

I check for the astronomical data on new moons on Irish time in October and November.

The night before a listed new moon is the dark moon – there’s usually a 3 day period of ‘New Moon’ that’s actually the very last sliver of the old moon, then the dark moon, then the very first sliver of the new moon.

The dates are simple and clear this year (2017), the New Moon is Thursday 19th October at 8.36pm Irish Time, so tomorrow is the Dark Moon – Wednesday 18th. In November, the New Moon is on Saturday 18th at 7.51am, so the Dark Moon on Friday 17th, and that clearly encompasses the calendar date of 31st October in the middle.

Sometimes the dates are a little less clear, so I always just pick the dark moon to dark moon that has the 31st October somewhere in there between them.

 

What To Do?

Mostly, my practice involves showing up consistently. It’s one of my ‘3 Cs’ of spiritual work:

  • Connection – authentic, energetic, emotional, intellectual, culturally respectful, contextualised in the established lore, communicative, conscious connection.
  • Contract – practice built on relationships and agreed terms, give and take, and the basic boundaries of regular rightful relationship, just as we would have in this world… but carefully laid out in contract, and regularly reviewed too!
  • Consistency – just showing up every day, every week, and doing the work; it sounds simple, but we humans are the ones who are very prone to be distracted by shiny things, funnily enough, and often give a strong start that peters out in very little time. Don’t do that.

 

Exactly what work I’ll be doing when I show up every day through my Samhain cycle varies from year to year.

Currently, I know it definitely involves morning tending and prayer at the Mórrígan altar (click for more info that) before my household wakes, continuing with my ‘Get in the Sea once in each 7 day period’ for at least the full run of this (I’m hoping for the sake of my poor, frostbitten fingers that I will be able to shelve that one at east ‘til the warmer weather once Samhain is done), and I’ll need to get out with bare feet on the earth under the sky and see the moon, every single night.

I’ve a few other ideas as to what I might have to do… but I’m hoping they’re not necessary. Still holding out hope for an easy life over here someday, as I’m pretty sure this shouldn’t be approached like the Ordeal Olympics with folk vying for who has the most hard-core contractual load being placed on them.

Essentially, I’m lazy as fuck, and if I wasn’t being God-bothered to do this stuff, I’d be tucked up in my Batman jammies and cozy toes slippers, HAPPY OUT.

Anyway, I’ll keep ye posted how the Samhain cycle progresses, but be prepared for me being even more than usually grumpy with the Mórrígan, and now Manannán Mac Lir (click for more info on him) for good measure, as I get even more God-bothered into doing shit I don’t want to be doing, and don’t even really understand why I have to do be doing it.

How’s your Halloween season shaping up?!


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An Interview with Lora O’Brien

Lora Black Bob

Samhain Interview with Lora O’Brien

First Contact

Hi Lora,

I hope you’re keeping well.

My name is Lisa [xxxxx] and I’m a freelance journalist for the Irish [xxxxx]. I am currently working on a Halloween special for the newspaper and I would like to include a feature on modern Irish women who practice witchcraft.

I was wondering if you might be interested in speaking to me about this? The questions will just be about how you got interested in witchcraft, explaining what it’s about, how you became interested in it, what role it plays in your everyday life, its benefits for you, etc. and hopefully debunking any old-fashioned ideas readers might have about it!

If you’re interested let me know, I would love to speak with you.

Lisa – 13th October 2016

 

Hi Lisa,

Sure I’m interested but as a fellow freelancer I should inform you I may not be what you’re looking for.

I go by the native term Draoí rather than witch, and my magic/spiritual practice are as close to indigenous pre Christian ways as I can figure. I’m about the archaeology of ancient sites and authentic translations of old Irish manuscripts rather than black cats and broomsticks. The reality of native Irish “witchcraft” doesn’t lend itself well to photo ops 😉

Of course being unaware of the query you’ve had accepted, this might still be aligned. In which case, I’d be happy to chat to you. I’m presenting at Octocon in Dublin on saturday, or can do a phone call at a mutually convenient time. Mornings are best for me.

Beannachtai

Lora

 

The Interview

 

  1. What does a Draoí mean and what does it entail in your everyday life?

The modern definition of the term is a little muddied, but technically the word Draoí means: druid, wizard, magician, augur, diviner. In practice, for me, it means that I follow the native spirituality and magic of Ireland as closely as I can in my everyday. This means that my worldview and actions are informed and shaped by the indigenous wisdom of our ancestral heritage, as far as that is possible.

  1. I know you’re not a witch but do any of the associated practices like casting spells, reading tarot cards and magic play a role in being a Draoí? If yes, how so or what are your own practices?

Yes, those practices come from the same roots as my own work, and there are similarities.

For divination or information seeking purposes I don’t use Tarot cards (though I did learn to read them, and even did so professionally a long time ago!), but rather a personal method of Journeying to the Otherworld (similar to the shamanic techniques in other native and tribal cultures) for guidance and clarification, combined on occasion with tools from our culture such as Ogham staves, or a simple 3 Stone method as described in our historical manuscripts.

Irish Magic is a very broad topic (and one which I’m currently writing a book on for a US publisher), but yes. The practice of magic and specific spells are described from our most ancient historical texts right through to Irish Christian folklore. While it is distinct from my spiritual beliefs, it does run hand in hand.

  1. How did you first realise you were a Draoí or how did you get interested in this spiritual practice? What benefits do you feel from it?

I’ve always been fascinated by the myth and magic of our stories, from childhood on, as well as having an affinity and reverence for the natural world. These things form the foundation of my path as a Draoí. Consciously though, I began to identify as ‘Pagan’ from the age of 16 when I read a book and realised there was a name for what I believed and felt, and other people who felt the same! I studied all I could about modern Paganism by myself, until I could contact others at the age of 18 (nobody reputable will seriously teach or even talk to a child or teenager), and found a group I could work with to learn more. Though there wasn’t anybody publicly teaching or sharing authentic spiritual connection to specifically Irish practice back then – and wasn’t didn’t really change until I published my first book in 2004! – I studied everything I could about earth based spirituality and magic world-wide, and built my own system and techniques that fit with what I was feeling and experiencing on the ground here.

I really got involved with our sacred sites and places of power in my twenties, and went on to guide at and manage one of our most important archaeological complexes, Rathcroghan in County Roscommon, for 8 years. Following this path has – literally – changed my life. I went from a very disturbed, anxious and troubled teenager who felt increasingly isolated and desperate, to a useful dedicated person who writes, teaches, guides, counsels, supports, speaks publicly all over the world, and has a genuine purpose in bringing those who wish to connect to Ireland the opportunities to do so in an authentic way. Plus we have a bit of craic while we’re at it. The benefits, to me and to those I help every day, are immeasurable.

  1. Witches sometimes are part of a coven. Is there a social aspect to being a Draoí or how often do you get to meet other people with shared beliefs?

When I had children, then moved to Roscommon, a lot of my community interaction moved online out of necessity. Now that I work a lot with people who aren’t physically in Ireland, or who can’t travel regularly to me or to the sites that I visit, that online contact remains a huge factor for me. Personally, I work alone rather than as part of a group – but I can’t stress enough how vital the role of community is in the practice of native Irish spirituality. Ireland is a small island, and I’ve been active in the Pagan community here now for over 20 years, so I know a lot of folk who form the basis of that community, and we talk, meet and share on a regular basis. And with the huge growth in interest in the last 10 years particularly, there are teaching and social events all over the country.

I live in Waterford now, and I’ve just started a social monthly meet-up locally, the Waterford Pub Moot, but there are events like that every month in counties all across Ireland. There are annual events and gatherings such as Féile Draíochta in Dublin (which myself and Barbara Lee organised and ran for 13 years), and Eigse Spiriod Ceilteach in Wicklow. And for those who can’t make it to events or sites in Ireland in person, I run a monthly community ‘club’ on Patreon which facilitates authentic sharing and connection to Ireland.

  1. Do you ever get approached for any unusual requests like ‘can you use magic to get my ex-boyfriend back’, etc?

I’ve been public about my practice for a very long time now, and as a writer I’ve been on the internet since way back in the day, so yeah, I’ve received some really oddball requests. People who are hurting, or even just selfish, think that magic can solve all their problems, land them their dreams with no effort, or take their pain away. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Like every other area of this existence, you have to do the work yourself to get the result.

  1. Irish people seem to be more interested in spirituality and wellbeing in recent years so I was wondering how people react when you describe your beliefs? Do you think as Irish people move away from the traditional Church they’re more open to other forms of spirituality?

I’ve been ‘out’ about who I am and what I do since I became consciously aware of it – back when I was 16. It gave me so much hope, support, and joy every day that I wouldn’t have been able to hide it even if I’d wanted to, and I never did want to anyway. I’ve never felt the need to introduce myself on first meeting as a Pagan or a Draoí, no more than regularly minded folk do that about their Christianity, but it’s not hard for people to discern for themselves before long. Or they just Google me and it all pops up.

The reaction has been mixed through the years, but for the most part it’s positive. People are curious and interested, even if they don’t understand it, and the most common response is to share their own (or their family’s) experience and stories of the ‘supernatural’ – the fairy fort or the banshee or the odd little folk habits and observations that Granny had. That’s the foundation for what I am doing, and it’s very relatable to the vast majority of Irish people, our spiritual and even magical heritage is only just under the surface.

The catholic church has had a stranglehold on Irish spirituality for a very long time, and though our ancestors found many ways to weave and blend their native faith into the new one, the church has always been jealous of our attention. As that hold releases, slowly but surely, I do believe that our people will begin to feel the call of the land more strongly, and build healthier communities where spiritual expression and practice is an open, fluid thing that serves the very real needs of the people, not the desires of any one organisation.

  1. Finally, does Halloween have a particular significance for you? If yes, do you have any plans to mark it?

Samhain is the original Irish festival which has become our modern Halloween, a time of huge importance to our ancestors which remains probably the biggest time of change and growth and celebration to modern practitioners.

Personally, I observe and celebrate Samhain from the dark moon to the dark moon, and not just on the calendar date we have now. So I will begin in the Cave at Rathcroghan (traditionally given as the entrance to the Irish Otherworld, and home of the Goddess Morrigan) on the dark moon before the 31st, and continue with personal ritual and celebration on a regular basis until the dark moon in November.

 

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Irish Bealtaine Traditions

Irish Bealtaine Broom Bush

May Bush, May Flowers, May Pole and May Bough are all traditions still to be found scattered through the Irish countryside come Bealtaine, 30th April (May Eve) and 1st May (May Day).

You might call it Beltine, Beltane, Beltaine, or any other variation of the word, but in Ireland it’s Bealtaine, as that is still the Irish language word for the month of May. So that’s good enough for me.

The turning of the year from Winter Darkness to Summer’s Light was and still is marked with flowers, fire, and fucking. (Maybe I should have said fertility? It’s also an ‘f’ word, so the alliteration would stand, but fucking just felt more honest.)

Luck and protection, health and happiness are the themes, and everything done as an individual or as a community focused on these important drives.

Originally we had two seasons, Summer and Winter, Sam and Gam in sean ghaeilge(old Irish). These were the times when everything changed – people, herds and flocks moved from winter to summer dwellings and pastures. Work focus changed. Women got pregnant at this time to ensure that come the third trimester they could be safely tucked up with indoor jobs beside the fire, preparing for a Spring birth with fresh foods available for essential sustenance. So, fucking in the fields was not just for fertility fun folks, this is a serious scheduling issue right here.

This year, I will not go out and get pregnant. In previous years, it seemed like an extreme adherance and a step too far – but this year, it’s moved to being physically impossible for me.

I will wash my face in the morning’s dew. Hey, I am turning 39 next Tuesday – I’ll take what I can get with regards to ancient traditions to impart a fresh faced glow. The sun’s rays piercing water, shimmering on a liquid surface this morning gives the blessing of beauty to those in the know. Or so they say.

There will be flowers strewn on my doorsteps, front and back, and on May Day a small group of us from the Waterford Pub Moot will meet and visit an ancient site for a picnic. I will probably do my usual clean up of said site, if there’s anything round it that shouldn’t be round it.

My Nana told me a story years ago about a cousin of hers in County Clare, who would go out on May morning with rotten eggs, and mix them into the soil of her neighbours’ fields. Bealtaine is a time for magic and mischief, and if you don’t look out you’ll be on the receiving end of all that.

So my protective fires will be lit, my boundaries and thresholds re-walked and reinforced, and I’ll do a general magical tidy up round the house and neighbourhood. Checking the fences, as it were. I pity the May Fool who tries to cross here uninvited *summer smiles*.

All will be well for the turning of the year, and as it should be. I wish you that and more, mo chairde.

Bealtaine shona dhaiobh, chun solas is beatha a fháil.

Beir Bua!